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Notes from a Small Planet: TREES

Basia Yoffe
February 1, 2015

by Basia Yoffe

Dancer treeAS TU B'SHVAT, the "New Year of the Trees," rolls around this Tuesday evening, I find myself thinking about trees.

Trees absorb nearly 40 percent of our fossil fuel emissions every year and store it in their wood and in the soil below them. Trees breathe in what we breathe out, and breathe out what we breathe in.

One of the most promising developments that grew out of the United Nations Climate Summit in September was the pledge by forty corporations to eliminate their deforestation activities entirely by 2030 and to cut them in half by 2020. This emerged from activism that led businesses to perceive the urgent need to halt deforestation, and their commitments are actually more reliable than the commitments of changing governments.

Here in the United States we have a history of successful reforestation. During the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps, a New Deal program, planted more than six billion trees.

A recent New York Times article noted that half of Costa Rica is now covered in forests after a successful reforestation effort. In the mid-20th century, much of that country's forests were depleted.

Deforestation was also a major problem in the Amazon until about ten years ago. Since that time, pressure from environmental groups has encouraged Brazil to cut the rate of deforestation by 70 percent. Half of the Brazilian rainforest is now no longer available for farming (and the clearcutting it often involves).

Tree ringsToday, Indonesian forests are in the most danger. The profitability of palm oil is a major incentive to cut down forests and replace them with palm trees. But environmental groups such as the Rainforest Action Network and Greenpeace have made huge progress in stopping this trend. Recent direct actions by Greenpeace have convinced the McDonald's corporation, a major user of palm products, to join the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. It's a belated victory, but an important one.

The Rainforest Action Network's website states that 2014 was a breakthrough year in protecting the rainforests, including the Canadian Boreal forest. These groups are getting amazing work done.

Efforts in agroforestry by Den Mudge of Cornell and Steve Gabriel of Finger Lakes Permaculture show that we can use our forests to grow food without cutting down trees. Traditionally, forests have been thought to compete with farmland; going forward, this need not be the case.

THE LATE FOUNDER of the Jewish Renewal movement, Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, once described the moment he first saw the picture of the earth from space: "No boundaries... it's alive," he marveled. "We have to realize we are not at the top of the chain of life, but integral cells of that being, Earth."

This year I am joining Greenpeace and the Rainforest Action Network for the first time. If you are not already a member, I suggest you do so, too.

Basia Yoffe, a member of our editorial board, is a Jewish environmental activist in upstate New York who edits Jewish Currents' "Notes from a Small Planet."